Each of our sons went on his first hike when he was about six weeks old. Granted, they didn't actually hike at that tender age (or even stay awake for long), but they were out in the woods with us, enjoying the fresh air. We have continued taking our children hiking as they've grown from infants to toddlers and beyond. Our experiences have been sometimes a bit challenging but always enjoyable and rewarding. Here's what you need to know to enjoy hiking with your own children.
The most important thing to remember when hiking with children is to adjust your expectations. This is especially true if you've hiked B.C. (Before Children). All parents know that things change when you have children, and hiking is no exception. At my six-week check-up after my first son was born, my obstetrician reassured me by explaining, "It's a different kind of normal now." As with many aspects of family life, hiking with children may be different than it was without them, but it's no less enjoyable - it's just a different kind of fun.
First, forget about time, distance, and goals. You'll only frustrate your children and set yourself up for disappointment. Instead of planning to cover a certain number of miles, learn to live in the moment and enjoy the journey. If you're unsure how to do this, just watch your children. You'll be amazed at what you see through their eyes. Adults tend to see the big picture; children see the details. While my husband and I are looking ahead at the trail, our sons notice moss, logs, sticks, and bugs. Will it take longer to hike this way? Absolutely! But nothing on earth can compare to experiencing the delight of a child discovering the world around him.
When you take your children along on hikes from the time they're infants, enjoying the outdoors together just becomes a natural part of family life as they grow. Besides, hiking with infants is about as easy as it gets. Their needs are simple, and they're still light enough to be carried easily.
First, invest in some basic equipment to make your hiking experiences comfortable and enjoyable. From birth through much of the first year, babies can ride comfortably in a soft front carrier. Once the baby is able to sit up on her own and hold up her head, she can ride in a baby backpack. Although newborn infants will mostly sleep through their first hikes, even two or three-month olds will begin to look around and enjoy their outdoor surroundings. Throughout this stage, you'll be able to hike pretty much as you would without children - keeping up a comfortable pace and covering varied terrain.
Once your baby begins to walk, your hikes will start to change. Some toddlers are still content to sit back in their carriers and let you do the work, but most new walkers don't like to be confined for very long. This is where you adjust your expectations - sometimes significantly. Toddlers often cover more ground from side to side on the trail than they do moving forward. The whole family will enjoy hiking more at this stage if you just accept the fact that hiking will be different for a few years and adjust your expectations accordingly. Continue to bring the backpack along because your toddler will likely tire out before you do (he's covering more distance running back and forth!).
In fact, this period can actually be one of the most fun, as you watch your toddler explore and discover the outdoor world. When our son Jamie was about two years old, he'd happily chant, "hike, hike, hike" as we walked through the woods, absolutely delighted to be outdoors. Very young children have a kind of boundless exuberance that makes any outing more fun.
Hiking with Young Children
By the time he turns three, your child will be ready for longer, more challenging hikes. Both of our sons rarely rode in the backpack carrier after age two, preferring to walk (or run) and having enough stamina to enjoy a real hike. I still clearly remember the first time our oldest son hiked an entire 1½-mile hike on his own, without asking to ride. Some much older boys ran past as he was climbing up a large rock. One of them yelled out, "Hey, big guy! You rock climbing?" I'll never forget Jamie's look of pride at being recognized by the big boys as he replied, "Yeah!"
Kids this age love to be in charge. Let your child "lead" the hike, following the trail and telling you which way to go. Who knows? Maybe being able to take charge on the trail will get some of that toddler bossiness out of her system!
Proper footwear is important, even for young children. Buy some sort of boots for hiking as soon as your child is beginning to hike on his own. They don't have to be fancy or expensive but should have good, grippy soles to prevent slipping and protect his feet. In wet or muddy areas, plain rubber boots work best for short-distance hikes. Your child can stomp in puddles as much as he wants, and you won't have to worry about him soaking a pair of hiking boots.
How Far How Soon?
Just how far should you expect your child to be able to hike? A rough rule of thumb is that a child is capable of hiking as many miles as his age. Of course, all children are different, and some may just naturally enjoy longer hikes and have more stamina than others of the same age. We've found this rule to be generally true, but you need to consider many factors when planning a hike with children.
Take into account the type of terrain you'll be hiking, the time of day, and the local conditions. Our younger son, at 2½ years old, can easily hike 1-2 miles of fairly level land, but if he's hungry or tired, he may not make it 100 yards before starting to whine and complain. Again, your expectations are crucial. It's better to plan a shorter hike, with the kids begging for more, than to push them beyond their limits.
During a vacation to Shenandoah National Park last summer, we ended up on a 5-mile hike with our sons who were then five years old and eighteen months. A misprint in the guidebook listed the mileage as 2½ miles round-trip. In addition, virtually all hikes in Shenandoah begin along the ridge, go down into the valley, and return back up. This one turned out to be pretty challenging for our older son Jamie, but a couple of critical factors saved the day and resulted in proud memories, instead of frayed tempers.
First, we chose a hike with an exciting point of interest. Our destination was a waterfall and nearby cave, which fueled the boys' anticipation on the way down. The return trip was much tougher - anti-climatic as well as uphill! While his younger brother took it easy in the backpack carrier, Jamie was beginning to visibly tire. We encouraged him in part by pointing out that this hike was his longest ever. The incentive to reach his personal best - 5 miles at 5 years old - helped motivate him.
Well-placed snacks and plenty of water are also keys to success. When we saw Jamie's energy begin to flag, we'd stop for a snack. It's amazing how a kid can bounce back with an apple or granola bar for renewed energy. Finally, when there was nothing left to look forward to but a long uphill, we passed the time with songs and games as we hiked. We sang silly songs (both familiar and made up) and played games like 20 Questions. Before we knew it, we were back at our car without a single complaint, and Jamie was grinning with pride at meeting his personal goal.
We've found hiking as a family to be immensely satisfying for all of us. Our boys love it and have already gained an appreciation for the natural world around them, as well as a sense of confidence. My husband and I have been able to continue an activity that we love. Occasionally, we get caught up in our hectic life and forget how rejuvenating it can be to get outdoors and hike. One weekday evening, my husband came home from work, tired and worn out. I suggested a hike at a nature center a few miles from our house, but he said he just wanted to stay home and unwind. After 10 minutes of our boys running around the house making noise, he looked at me and said, "OK! Let's get out of here!" A half-hour hike left us all feeling content and relaxed. Next time, we'll remember.